(photo credit: AP [file])
On his visit to Moscow, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seems to have run into a Russian leader who is flexing his muscles. He is resisting demands from the US on Iran sanctions, from the EU on energy policy, and from Israel on its relations with the Arab world. Yet what Russian leader Vladimir Putin needs to understand is that, ultimately, a leadership role cannot be built on being a spoiler.
Russia's latest gambit is to condition its support for a UN sanctions resolution on Iran on obtaining an exemption for Russia's own massive deal to build Iran's nuclear reactor at Bushehr. This is a perfect example of how not to be a great power.
Even Europe, which for years resisted sanctions against Iran out of a combination of fear and a narrow interpretation of its economic interests, may finally be coming around to move beyond such catastrophically short-term thinking. Now Russia is taking Europe's place as the pivotal obstacle to sanctions tough enough to possibly turn Teheran from its nuclear path, thereby avoiding military action.
Standing with Putin on Wednesday in Moscow, Olmert declared:
"Israel does not have the luxury to allow the creation of a situation where a country like Iran has non-conventional potential. Israel cannot abide this type of situation. For us, when the head of a country says he wants to destroy us, we do not take it as an empty declaration, but something we must prepare to prevent through all acceptable and possible ways."
Though Olmert stated that Putin had agreed with him privately, Putin himself was silent about the Iranian issue. Does he really think that this is how a great power behaves?
Putin claims that he is against Iran going nuclear and nothing Russia is doing would help Teheran in its quest for the bomb. But the measure of which side Putin is on cannot be taken on the basis of whether Russian technology is actually being used to develop weapons, but whether Russia is blocking an effective Western sanctions campaign.
The choices are simple and stark: 1) sanctions tough enough to dissuade Teheran, 2) a popular uprising deposing the regime, 3) a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, 4) an aggressive, terror-supporting state obtaining nuclear weapons.
If Russia chooses to play the spoiler and block all non-military options, it may succeed in demonstrating a form of power. For Russia - and China for that matter - it may seem that the more chaotic and violent world that would emerge from an American failure to block Iran would be in their interest; in relative terms, their power might go up if America were knocked down a peg.
But a strategy of making the world safer for dictatorship and mayhem clearly is not in the interests of the Russian people. The danger is that Putin thinks it would be in the interest of his rule, or for whatever reason does not have the courage or vision to take on Russian elements with financial interests threatened by Western sanctions.
Unfortunately, based on Putin's behavior rather than his rhetoric, Western nations must assume that the Russian leader is playing such a double game. Accordingly, Israeli and other leaders must start asking themselves how long they can publicly give Putin the benefit of the doubt and pretend that Russia is playing a constructive rather than highly obstructionist role.
Russia must be judged by its actions. If the US and Europe are ready to impose effective sanctions against Teheran - in contrast to the unimpressive measures just taken by the UN Security Council against North Korea - and Russia is standing in the way, then the leading democracies must not politely take their cards and go home.
With respect to Israel, Putin should understand that greeting our prime minister in Moscow with a friendly "Shalom" might be a welcome contrast to the Soviet years, but these days cannot be taken as a true measure of friendship. Israel has just fought a war against Russian anti-tank weapons supplied by Syria to Hizbullah, an Iranian proxy force. If Russia wants to be considered part of the West, these times demand joining our side, not protecting our common enemies.